Séamas O’Reilly talks to the ‘Journal’ about his poignant and hilarious new memoir ‘Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?’

On October 17, 1991, Sheila O’Reilly died after a four year battle with breast cancer. She was in her early 40s.

Friday, 30th July 2021, 5:56 pm
Séamas O'Reilly
Séamas O'Reilly

A new memoir written by her son Séamas, who was five at the time of her death, relates how he, his father Joe and his 10 siblings - ‘Sinead-Dara-Shane-Orla-Maeve-Mairead-Dearbhaile-Caoimhe-Fionnuala-Conall,’ as he lists them in his debut long-form work - somehow processed the worst thing that had ever happened to them.

‘Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?’ is both a tender meditation on bereavement and loss with Sheila and Joe at its centre, as well as a wry account of growing up in Derry in the 1990s in a riotously big family who spent most of their time taking the hand out of one another.

Dealing with the big themes, the book is at times deeply moving. At others it is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Often in the same paragraph.

Séamas, who lives in London from where he contributes to the Irish Times and The Observer, and is features editor at The Fence magazine, skilfully leavens the deep sorrow of his family’s tragedy with uplifting and very funny observations about his Derry childhood. It’s a difficult literary tightrope walk that he executes expertly.

“The main impulse to write the book the way I did was to try and have that balance because, firstly, I write towards the comedy end of things anyway. I enjoy writing and reading people with that lightness of touch and always have.

“It’s something I enjoy doing and something I’ve been able to do professionally which is good. It’s easier to do that when you’re writing about the travails of parenting or doing cultural criticism or those kinds of things which I do a lot of.

“So I thought, you know, if I was going to talk about slightly more real stuff, then that would be the challenge because the worst version of it would be something that was completely glib and totally lacking in depth. I think I say at some point, ‘far be it from me to tell you that my mother’s death was actually sad’.

“The risk is that, not just that you make something that seems like it doesn’t do justice to the real story but also it will come off as insincere and people would switch off.

“If you have that change of gear you have to make sure the reader doesn’t find it jarring - ‘oh there’s a funny bit and now here’s a sad bit all of a sudden. What’s going on here?’ From my experience all of life is funny and all of life is sad and all of life is scary. That’s just the normality of life. You get those tonal changes in daily life,” he told the ‘Journal.’

Throughout ‘Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?’ the eviscerating pain of bereavement is deliberately woven through with gags. The book is loaded with a bathos that actually has the searing effect of making the sad parts even sadder rather than the opposite. This emotional chiaroscuro is something Séamas has admired in other writers.

“Some of my favourite, most beautiful, wonderful books that talk about extremely tough, extremely terrifying situations or horrible traumatic experiences are leavened with jokes. It grounds you and it deepens the sadness of the other parts and your emotional reaction to the people. It’s just more accurate.

“Everybody has been at a funeral and laughed until they cried. I think that’s a normal thing, especially when you are around family and people that know the deceased.

“It doesn’t even have to be that. You can be talking about the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you, the most painful break-up you’ve ever had. You can talk about it with your friends and you are laughing and that’s not false. It’s the opposite. It’s real.

“For me the difficulty was always going to be achieving that properly. You can set out to do that and try to start doing that but you’ll start to find false notes, you’ll start to find things when it is like, ‘no, you are going easy on yourself there.’ You should hit it head on. That was the intent.”

O’Reilly grew up fast on the Derry-Donegal border at Molenan a few miles south of the city. His mother Sheila was a very well-got local teacher. His father Joe worked a life time with the water service at Lisnagelvin before his retirement. Both were Fermanagh-natives and happened to be personal friends with fellow lakelander, the late Bishop Edward Daly, even before they moved to Derry in 1985.

Though they lived beside Killea and Carrigans they were very much Derry-oriented, heavily involved in the parish life of the Long Tower. Séamas went to school at the Nazareth House and later ‘The College.’

“The closest pub to us in Derry is that place that used to be Dodd’s about three or four miles away. Derry just stops and then there is nothing.

“I always tell that to people who try to explain, as English people, the border to me. Well, the closest pub to me is a 15 minute walk away and it’s in Killea.

“In the straight line that you walk there are no street signs and you cross the border about five or six times without realising it so good luck putting police turrets up around there.

“Because we were from a townland, we weren’t from a village or anything, we were Derry through-and-through. We went to Derry schools, we went to Derry pubs. Everything was focused in that direction. I always felt like I was from Derry even though Donegal was five feet from my bedroom.

“In Killea it’s mostly Derry accents now. It’s very loose, very porous. Even if you go about two or three miles over the border it’s mainly transplanted Derry people and everybody works in one place and lives in another or their family lives in another.

“Everybody crosses that border. My da would walk the dog and crosses the border ten times a day.”

‘Did You Hear Mammy Died?’ is keenly observed and will certainly resonate with a local readership especially those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s in the city.

The Derry Feis, Hallowe’en, the outsized Derry family, West Side Stores [remember that] and the ancient practice of taping films on to VHS off the TV, are among the many things lovingly skewered.

Séamas, at one point, captures the doom of hearing the closing titles of ‘Glenroe’ on a Sunday night as a child and knowing the start of another school week was impending.

One section reflects the perennial practice of perusing the deaths in the local paper. “Priests died too. ‘Ach no, Daddy would say, ruffling the pages of the Derry Journal for effect as he spoke to no one in particular. ‘There’s Hustings LeFarge dead anyway.’”

And the war is there in the background but never the main focus. Séamas recalls how the IRA blew up a customs post beside their bungalow in August 1988. He was only two-and-a-half at the time but when he dug out the Derry Journal report he joked that he was disappointed it had only been mentioned as a nib amid a weekend of chaos.

“The snippet from our local paper came out four days later, and limited the mention of the ‘Molenan Road’ explosion - our explosion - to about fifty words,” a passage reads.

He quips it was typical of his father Joe that he was more discomfited by the ‘Journal’using the ‘Molenan’ rather than ‘Mullennan’ spelling of the townland than the debris that has been blown into his field by the bomb.

“There is bleakness and a black humour in Derry which is probably very easily explained by what’s happened for the past 40 or 50 years and however many hundred years before that. A sort of acceptance of black humour and an acceptance of the funny to be found in the terrible and the horrible,” Séamas observes.

By happy accident the arrival of ‘Did You Hear Mammy Died?’ comes as the personal memoir is having a bit of a moment in publishing. Equally there seems a wider market for literature and film from this part of the world.

Lisa McGee’s ‘Derry Girls,’ Ann Burns’ ‘Milkman,’ Geraldine Quigley’s ‘Music Love Drugs War’ and Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s ‘Thin Places’ are all recent very different examples of works in which the ‘Troubles’ are acknowledged but they are not the main or sole narrative driver.

“I think a lot of people are realising that there are things that are interesting and funny and heartbreaking about NI which don’t cleave to those same one or maybe two types of stories that we told about NI in the past.

“I spoke to Lisa McGee a few years ago about this and she made the point that it was very leather-jacketed, very moustached, very male and stories were only ever told through a lense of bombings, hijackings and whatever else. The problem with that was not just that it’s not the full story it was repetitive.

“I think what ‘Derry Girls’ does so well is that it shows you people in Derry. There was absolutely stuff going on but the vast majority of people’s lives were about getting a job that they liked, going out with a girl that they fancied or wanting to go to the disco or being obsessed with music. In my case it was trying to make friends who were into the same things as me, having a normal childish and teenage life. Those stories should still be told.”

The creation of ‘Did You Hear Mammy Died?’ has been a cathartic experience. It’s allowed Séamas to talk with his sisters and brothers about grief in more depth than he might have otherwise. Now a parent himself it has also led to a new found admiration for his father Joe, who since the release of the book has become something of a celebrity.

“We used to just marvel at how my dad was able to just get on with things, not at the time, at the time we were probably just really ungrateful! But especially since a good lot of us have had kids of our own. We’ll stand on a lego or get yoghurt flicked up on us by our beautiful offspring and we’ll just ring our dad on a random Wednesday and say ‘daddy how did you do this? How did you have eleven kids? What? How on earth?’ He always says, ‘sure which of youse would I give back?’ Which is very sweet but we do then immediately start suggesting candidates.”

‘Did You Hear Mammy Died?’ is available at https://geni.us/DidYeHearMammyDied